Interview: Fr. John Cooper, Parish Priest (Pastor) of St. Robert’s, England
Other languages: English, Hrvatski
Date: July 26, 2005 , Originally published June 3, 2002
INTERVIEW: Fr. John Cooper, Parish Priest (Pastor) of St. Robert’s, England Fr. John Cooper, parish priest (pastor) of St. Robert’s at Morpeth, Northumberland (England) has been coming to Medjugorje for many years now as a spiritual adviser to pilgrims. For him, Medjugorje is as a source of renewal for prayer and parish life. He is also spiritual director for the Medjugorje Apostolate in the northeast of England. We asked him to share with Medjugorje friends his insights and experiences linked to Medjugorje and the Shrine of the Queen of Peace.
Lidija Paris: Father John, for a number of years now you have been involved in the Prayer Movement linked to the apparitions of the Queen of Peace in Medjugorje. You believe that these apparitions are true and you share this belief with so many faithful. Would you be so kind as to tell us something about yourself and how you have discovered Medjugorje as a source of renewal for prayer and parish life?
Fr. John Cooper: I am a priest of the diocese of the diocese of Hexom – Newcastle in the northeast of England. I am the parish priest of a small town called Morpeth. I was ordained in March 1973. My first two years I was studying Canon Law in Rome. Then I came back to the diocese in 1975 and I worked on the Diocesan Marriages Tribunal for many years, and in parishes, and I was secretary to the bishop for ten years. After that, I was a missionary in Africa for five years. I came back in 1994 and I have been a parish priest for the last eight years. I still work for the Diocesan Marriages Tribunal. This last year I have been acting as a spiritual director for the Medjugorje Apostolate in the northeast of England.
I first heard about Medjugorje in the early 80’s, shortly after the apparitions began. Two priests from our diocese came here. They were involved in the Marian Movement of Priests. I was affected a great deal. They were totally convinced by it. The first time I heard about it, I believed in the apparitions here. At the same time, there was a very popular programme on television, the “Esther Ransdsome Show” which was an audience-tapped show – participation. And this particular day, they were talking about the supernatural experiences. There was a man in the audience who was one of the top English newspapers men who went to Medjugorje, although he was not a believer and he didn’t want to go. But he was fascinated about what he found here and he said, “All I want to tell you is that something is happening there!”
Lidija Paris: The importance of the supernatural experiences was underlined at several occasions by the Cardinal Ratzinger …
Fr. John Cooper: Yes. In the introduction of the document linked to the revelation of the third secret of Fatima, he talked about the place of the apparitions in the life of the Church. Over the centuries, apparitions have helped people to make the Gospel more alive for them. Certain apparitions and revelations, like those of the Sacred Heart to St. Margaret Mary, have even influenced the Church’s doctrine. Sometimes you come across people who will dismiss apparitions and will say that they don’t have any value, that they are not necessary, but the Cardinal says: “Yes, they do have a place!” because they deepen our faith.
In the interview he gave in 1984, when he was questioned about Medjugorje, he spoke about people saying that these things can’t happen these days, that God can’t intervene… He said that both Lourdes and Fatima have their place in the Church’s history. Medjugorje will wait with patience to see… The Vatican is careful to see the fruits. I am sure that Holy Father thinks that these things have a value in evangelisation.
Lidija Paris: What makes you believe that the apparitions and the messages of Medjugorje are authentic?
Fr. John Cooper: There are so many common points between Our Lady’s messages and the teaching of our Holy Father! It was especially evident in connection to the Jubilee Year. The build-up of the Jubilee was a special time of spiritual re-examination and renewal. In the Holy Father’s Letter “Tertio Millenio Adveniente” is a phrase that struck me: he said that a new springtime of the Church would come about if we were open to working of the Holy Spirit.
In 1998 I asked Fr. Jozo what he thought about the saying of the Holy Father, that the new springtime of the Church was coming about, and he said: the new springtime has already began and Medjugorje was the heart of it.
In the Encyclical after the Jubilee, “Tertio Millennio Ineunte”, I was amazed when the Pope came with the pastoral programme for the new millennium; it was almost identical to the basic messages of Medjugorje: conversion, prayer, the Eucharist, penance, reading the Word of God, and I said: the only thing he omitted was fasting! The programme that the Pope is giving for the millennium is exactly the same as Our Lady’s messages. Even though he is not saying anything particularly about Medjugorje, the Holy Father’s writing is endorsing what is being said here.
Lidija Paris: You have been accompanying pilgrims to Medjugorje for many years now. What do people seek, why do they want to come to Medjugorje?
Fr. John Cooper: I first came in 1996, and since then nearly every year. I think people come here at first out of curiosity: Is this true? Can it be in our age that Our Lady is appearing? Most people are looking for greater certainties in the faith. For those who have come here, their faith has been greatly strengthened.
Lidija Paris: What happens when they go back? Do they continue, or it is just a flame that burns out quickly?
Fr. John Cooper: In those who came with me last year, I noticed the change. They pray more, they come to Mass more, they come to confession more, they are those who have taken up monthly confession, they try to fast, to live the monthly messages. In Morpeth, we have a quite active Medjugorje group with a monthly newsletter, we have a half-day of recollection every month, there are about 40 people coming from all over the diocese.
Lidija Paris: Do you, as a parish priest, speak about Medjugorje?
Fr. John Cooper: I delight to talk to people about Medjugorje informally. When it comes to mention Medjugorje in homilies, I do not like to do it too much, but from time to time, I do. People in the parish hear me talking.
Lidija Paris: For you, the pilgrimages to Medjugorje obviously bring fruits in the life of the parish.
Fr. John Cooper: Yes. In England, we struggle pastorally. I have been in Africa; there, the Church is very much alive, growing very fast. In England, it is at a decline. When Fr. Jozo came to England in 1995, he had a two-day retreat for priests in Birmingham. I went to that, I was drawn. He gave us a chance to ask him questions. I asked him what pastoral solutions he could propose to us. He said that we should try to get people to pray more and more. Not to worry too much about meetings. And whatever groups we have in the parish, to try to get them to pray more. I said: “We have been trying to do this over seven years, but it is very slow!” He said: “Do not expect things to happen over night!”
One of the problems we have in England is the problem of authority. In times gone by, when the parish priests said something, people said “yes”. Now, people do in their own way. It is difficult to convince them. I think that this is one of the biggest pastoral problems we have in the West. And a lot of the scandals that we had… The confidence in the priesthood is gone. Fr. Jozo said: “Just keep trying!”
Lidija Paris: What is it that strengthens the faith of people here in Medjugorje?
Fr. John Cooper: I think that there is a strong connection between praying and faith. The more you pray, the more you grow in faith. But also, I encourage people to pray for the gift of faith. People pray for material things, but how many pray to have a strong faith, for ability to love their husband or wife? When we pray for the spiritual gifts, which are necessary, God always answers our prayers. Many people come to me and say their faith is growing weaker. I tell them to pray for a stronger faith, to get into the habit of daily prayer, to take daily prayer seriously, to pray about faults they have. We need to relate confession to daily life.
I think, in the western society, we build a world without God. Many people watch television three hours a day. They complain about immorality and violence, but the worst thing is that television presents a world without God. Sr. Briege McKenna calls it Satan’s tabernacle… but television can also be used for good. Let’s do it! Life is like a balance. We have this immense influence of the secular media and we have to counterbalance it with prayer, and one hour a day is not sufficient!
Lidija Paris: Who needs Medjugorje today? Do “professionals of prayer”, like religious, need Medjugorje?
Fr. John Cooper: Sometimes, I have been surprised about a certain superficiality. I spoke with a Cistercian monk about fasting in Lent. He said: “Well, we do not have sweets!” You can’t say that “professionals” of the Church do not need Medjugorje…
Lidija Paris: Do you think that a coming to Medjugorje is also a renewal for a priest? What the priests gain coming to Medjugorje?
Fr. John Cooper: Sure. One of the things that struck me was a message about priests, which Our Lady gave to the visionaries very early: that priests should be strong in faith and strengthen the faith of people. This is something I pray about and see in the heart of my ministry: to strengthen the faith of others.
Lidija Paris: What has the contact with Medjugorje changed in your personal life as priest, as a man of God and of the Church?
Fr. John Cooper: I try to live the messages of Medjugorje: meditating the Scripture, going for monthly confession, the Eucharist, the Office, I try to fast… I noticed a difference in my homilies if I fast. You preach with a greater power after fasting. I have embraced the “Medjugorje spirituality” as far as you can talk about it. It is important for me to ready everyday the messages, to listen to tapes of Fr. Slavko, Fr. Jozo, more than other things. And all the time you get new insights. There is a great depth in the messages. When the monthly message comes, I write it sentence by sentence and I meditate on it. And I feel a deep inner joy about it. They make me very happy. Our Lady is speaking about joy a great deal, especially since the Jubilee. Often it is connected with the evangelisation, being joyful people attracting others to Christ. I think we should pray for joy in our prayer life. Many people find prayer boring. We should pray for the grace for joy in prayer, to pray with our hearts...
Lidija Paris: Do you remember any special graces received in Medjugorje by pilgrims that you have accompanied?
Fr. John Cooper: Last year, I came with a small group of parishioners for the first time. One lady had cancer. At that time, she was receiving chemotherapy and there was some hope. She came out here obviously looking for a cure. In the build-up to the pilgrimage, she was praying more with her husband. They began to say the rosary. The husband told me about three months before the pilgrimage, that she had the insight: “Yes, I must pray the rosary every day”, which she had never done before. When they went back, being realistic, she told me that the big thing that happened to her was that she was no longer afraid of dying. “Now, I have no more fear.” She died in March this year, but Medjugorje gave her a tremendous strength in the last months of her life. When you come here, if you believe that Our Lady is truly present, doubts about the after-life go away. And you can approach death peacefully.
There was a young man as well who came with me last year. He is a homosexual, very disturbed in his life. I saw a tremendous change in him. He found peace and he is now a man of great prayer.
Lidija Paris: If someone would ask you to say one sentence about Medjugorje, the most important, crucial, what would it be?
Fr. John Cooper: It is connected with faith. Our Lady said: “I have come to tell you that God exists.” Medjugorje is here to strengthen our faith in God’s work. For western society, that is the critical thing.
Lidija Paris: As a parish priest, do you have a message for other parish priests?
Fr. John Cooper: Do not prejudge Medjugorje, come and see!
Lidija Paris: Thank you, Fr. John, for sharing your reflections with us. Let us remain united in prayer for the renewal of the Church, according to the will of God, according to Our Lady’s counsels and to Holy Father’s teachings.